How much do we know about what the Internet is doing to us? I have to confess, I spend a lot of time there and I have begun to be self-critical of what I do and where I go. For me, considerable Internet time is spent “finding things out” that simply catch my attention, and much like real interactions it sometimes feels as if I am having a conversation with myself – ‘the idle thoughts of an idle fellow’ – if you will, which allows me to meander from one informational node to another.
Perhaps I should be quite grateful that I don’t as a rule feel the need to comment exhaustively on the thoughts, rants and emotional detritus of others. I think this is mostly because the act of comment is a reactive rather than a proactive event but I do occasionally weigh in on a forum somewhere. Many political forums, in particular those associated with, for example, climate change or Israel, seem to fuel strong opinions, disagreement and occasional episodic trolling. Such behaviour seems to be targeted at those with fragile minds, whose emotions run fast, but whose intellect travels more slowly. Recipients seem sometimes to almost enjoy the online persecution that they receive from a menagerie of trolls using monosyllabic, piously gentle and sometimes Biblical responses to the vituperative ad hominem attacks upon them.
|Harmless little trolls?|
I began thinking about what this has to tell us about the personalities of trolls themselves and what, if anything, an uncensored Internet should do about them. Recent research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterised by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).
It is hard to underplay the results – disturbing as they were. The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behaviour. What’s more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet. The correlation between sadistic traits was particularly strong, since the allure of trolling is attractive to those who buy into the idea that “the more beautiful and pure a thing (or person) is, the more satisfying it is (they are) to corrupt.”
A new psychology seems to be emerging, one in which the type of behaviour which would normally be considered either gratuitously offensive or simply illegal if conducted in real life is either excused, ignored or condoned online. The Net as an organism might be thought to encourage antisocial behaviour since the consequences of such actions largely go unpunished, except by exclusion within a small cluster of offendees, and since the perpetrator is not geographically constrained to behave himself, he can simply drift into another cluster and indulge his fantasies there, over and over again.
Psychology has plenty of data but currently relatively few answers, it would seem, on the effect that exposure to trolling has on the public perception of controversial issues. Trolls – as real people – push other real people’s emotional buttons and it seems to have the effect of hardening pre-existent beliefs thus making people less amenable to reason. I suppose this makes sense, in a way, since people feel first – a knee-jerk reaction, and think later which I think the psychs call ‘motivational reasoning’. So, one way or another, the trolls always win.